This is the first part in a series where CUI Sports talks to the best and brightest CU-Boulder alumni in the world of sports journalism.
Working for the New York Times and winning a Pulitzer Prize are two of the most distinguishing things a journalist can do. John Branch, a University of Colorado Boulder graduate, has done both. One of the CU Independent’s sports editors talked to Branch about his journey to becoming a renowned storyteller in the world of sports and his opinions on the field of journalism itself.
Jared Funk-Breay: Coming to CU-Boulder in 1985, what was your career plan?
John Branch: You know I never really had one. It was the 1980s and it was the me generation, the Alex Keaton from ‘Family Ties’ generation. And so I was accepted into the business school and thought, “This is where I should be. This is where you go to have a successful life and business career.” I never really thought much beyond that. I was a marketing major, so I thought maybe I would get into advertising or something like that. I think I was just a product of my generation and I think I was looking for the safest route to a nice solid happy adult life.
JF: What happened in the years between when you graduated and when you came back to get your masters in journalism?
JB: Yeah, how much time do you have? (Laughs). What happened was I took a job as an executive trainee with a May company department store, an old department store company in Denver called May D&F, and was an assistant buyer and department manager for them for a couple of years on the track to become like a department store buyer. And after a couple or three years, I sort of grew tired of that and I had a friend who had gone to Costco, actually it was Price Club at the time, and he said you might like it over here. And so I got a job at Costco as a manager there. So I spent four or five years as a Costco manager in various departments there in the warehouse. I loved it, but I got to a point where I started to feel like it wasn’t exactly what I wanted to be doing and it’s not something I want to grow old doing. And so I really started to listen to my heart more than my head finally, and with the support of friends and my wife I decided to go back to school and explore journalism, which was something that was always in the back of my mind as a kid and an undergraduate.
JF: You started at the Colorado Springs Gazette in the business section. After a couple of years you moved to sports. Was that partly your decision or how did that come about?
JB: This is one of those examples of how you can never predict your own future. They knew when they hired me that I wanted to be a sports writer at some point. And about two years into my tenure at the Gazette, one of our sports writers who was based in Denver suffered a brain aneurism within hours. And I was called to the office the next working day and they said, “Well, we’re in a bind. You said you want to be a sports writer…” And I said “Yeah I’d love to be.” I had never written sports before, but they put me on the Air Force football beat at the Gazette and I covered Air Force football for what turned out to be one of its best seasons in history. And by the end of the season we had a new sports editor and he moved me to Denver to go cover the Broncos. So you just never know where your opportunities are going to come from. Certainly I would never wish that it would come from the death of a colleague. That’s horrible. But that happened to be where my opportunity came from in sports.
JF: You moved from the Fresno Bee to the New York Times in 2005. That’s a pretty big jump. How did that happen?
JB: I was a columnist at the Fresno Bee and I had started interviewing at a couple places, pretty big size papers. There are more columnist jobs on the west coast. I got a call out of the blue from an old colleague of mine from Colorado Springs who had moved on to the New York Times several years later, and she told me that there was an opening for a beat writing job at the New York Times covering Giants football. And I told her, “Hey thanks for thinking of me, but I really like being a columnist and I feel pretty good about my chances of getting a pretty good columnist job here out west.” I hung up the phone and my wife looked at me and said, “Did you just tell the New York Times that you’re not interested in maybe working for them?” And I said, “Yeah I did just do that didn’t I?” She said, “Yeah, that doesn’t seem to be very smart.” So I called my friend back and said, “You haven’t told them no yet have you?” and she said no. I said, “Let them know and I’ll send my stuff.” So I sent my stuff to them and a few days later I got a call from the sports editor. They flew me out to New York to interview and I got the job.
JF: As a journalist, what process do you enjoy more: writing or interviewing and talking to people?
JB: I like interviewing and reporting more than I like writing. Just as a day-to-day function it’s very exciting. My favorite part of this job is that I get to explore worlds I don’t know much about. I get to learn something knew everyday, and that comes from the reporting. But I will say there is a great satisfaction for once you finish writing. I don’t love the process. I think it’s hard. I think that anybody who tells you that writing’s not hard is wrong or is not actually a writer. But I do like being finished writing. It’s kind of like working out or going for a long run. Like I hate running, but I love the feeling that I’ve just run. And that’s sort of the way that I view writing.
JF: What was the experience of winning a Pulitzer for “Snow Fall” like?
JB: Winning a Pulitzer was something so far off my radar I can’t even explain it. The year before I had been a finalist for it, which was equally as weird for a series of stories I wrote about a hockey player who had died. And so when it came around again and I learned I was a finalist, you know, what can you do? It’s other people’s decision for who wins. So I got a call one day when I was driving back between L.A. and San Francisco with my family from Disneyland and we were out in the middle of nowhere on I-5 and my phone rang and it was my editor saying you just won the Pulitzer. It’s a strange thing in a lot of ways. I’d like to say it hasn’t changed me. I think it changes other people’s perceptions of me. As other people that have won the Pulitzer told me, “Now you know the first line of your obituary.” But my job hasn’t changed. I didn’t get rich from it. I’d like to think that people that know me think I’m the exact same person and the exact same reporter that I was beforehand. But it does open doors. I have a lot of college students and professors who want to talk to me. I have a lot of speaking opportunities that weren’t there before. So people that didn’t know me think I’m suddenly really smart. And that’s kind of strange.
JF: How did you get involved with the story of Derek Boogaard, the hockey “enforcer,” who died in 2011 after a drug and alcohol overdose when recovering from a concussion?
JB: Most stories I do are my own idea. I have that luxury. But this one was not. The sports editor at the time, his name was Joe Sexton, he called me probably two or three weeks after Derek Boogaard died and said, “Hey why don’t you look into this story? The family is donating his brain to Boston University.” And the New York Times had always been very upfront with stories about brain science and concussions and so we felt we needed to stay on top of whatever findings came out of Derek Boogaard’s case, especially because he was a hockey player, not a football player as most the cases had been. And so the assignment was a wonderful assignment. It was open ended. It was “go find everything out about Derek Boogaard and his life,” and with the help of a lot of his friends and the great help from his family, I was able to find out as much as I could and turn it into a newspaper series, which then became the book “Boy on Ice”.
JF: How does it feel to change the conversation of concussions in the culture of hockey? Is that what you were trying to do?
JB: No, I would never say that myself that I’ve changed anything. I think as a reporter you don’t go in there with a mission. You can’t go into it with a mission. My mission was really to tell the story of a kid who grew up into a hockey player and died at the age of 28 of a painkiller overdose. At the time he was considered one of the toughest people in sports. How does that happen? Who was this kid? I wanted to give life to the young man behind the headlines. I never considered what this might mean for hockey. It was a single case. It has resonated in the hockey community and here we’re talking the day after another hockey player who was just found dead under somewhat mysterious circumstances at the age of 35. I’m afraid that Derek Boogaard is one of many cases that we’ll continue to see.
JF: Being a New York Times writer living in the Bay Area, what does a normal day of work look like for you?
JB: I probably travel about a third of my days so I’m on the road quite a bit. The other two-thirds of the days I’m home and I kind of create my own schedule. There are times that I wake up and I have messages from New York saying “something’s happened can you help out?” And there are times I go several days without talking to anybody—the whole office—because they know I’m working on something. And those days involve maybe taking my kids to school and coming back and working all day and then picking up my kids and then working even in the night. It all depends what the assignment it is that I’m working on. It’s a wonderful job. I may have the best job in sports journalism. I wouldn’t argue with anybody. I wouldn’t trade with anybody. Part of that is I’m able to still work for the New York Times but also work from home and have a lot of freedom for the things I get to write and report. So, Jared, if you want my job you’re going to have to wait. I’m not giving it up yet (laughs).
JF: What are some things in your career that you’re proud of that might not get as much attention as “Snow Fall” or the book you wrote?
JB: That’s a great question because people always want to talk about Snowfall and Derek Boogaard and that’s great. I sort of feel like what about the other 2,000 stories I’ve written or whatever the number is? Most of my favorite stories are other stories beyond that. They’re stories that nobody else will really remember. I love finding kind of quirky stories that nobody else has written, nobody else has thought to write. Those are the stories that make me proud. So if somebody reads it they go, “Wow, what a great idea and what a cool story.” The stories that I enjoy most are the ones that are very human. I think every good story is about people, not about sports or statistics or anything else. So there are stories like the series of stories I wrote about a girls basketball team in Tennessee and they’ve gone, I guess, now close to a decade without winning any basketball games. It’s a reform school in Tennessee, so I spent a lot of time writing two different series of stories about this girls basketball team and where these girls come from and how they ended up at this reform school and how they ended up playing for a basketball team that never ever wins. I love those kinds of stories. I also think I like underdogs. I’ve always been a sucker for the people who lose as opposed to people who win. I always find a losing locker room much more interesting than the winning locker room.
JF: Being one of the beat writers for CU football last year, I actually have gotten to experience my fair share of losing.
JB: I’m not sure it’s that much fun when they keep losing. But I always think of like a big game you know like the Super Bowl, and how close did the Seahawks come to winning that game? And just that one split second turns one team into a champion and the other team into something less. In our culture we tend to make that a big gap between winners and losers and I’ve always been fascinated by people who come up just short and how they deal with it and how the culture deals with it.
JF: That reminds me of ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary “Of Miracles and Men” that aired not too long ago about the 1980 Russian hockey team that lost to the U.S. Were you able to catch that?
JB: I did yeah. I love that. That’s such a fascinating look at a story that we had so fixed in our minds in one way. It was the good, young Americans against the evil Russians or Soviets I guess. It was good guys and bad guys and good guys won against all odds. Movies have been made about it. Books have been written about it. And then you kind of realize, “You know what? Those were people too.” Those are sometimes great people that we just never really got to know. And I’m the type of person that wants to get to know those types of people. Sports has the weird habit of dividing people into winners and losers and painting people as though they’re one dimensional in their ways–we all know that’s way too simple. People deserve a full airing whether they win or they lose.
JF: One thing I’m interested to get your opinion on is players like Kevin Durant and Marshawn Lynch voicing their disdain for sports media. What do you think is the result of this backlash? Does anything need to change?
JB: I think it’s changed in that players and coaches no longer feel the need to use the media as their mouthpiece. Players can go straight to the fans through social media. Teams can go straight to their fan bases through their own social media. And so the idea of the media as the conduit is, I don’t know, disintegrating I guess. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I don’t know. I’d like to think that fans would realize if they want a relatively unbiased and intensive look at the sports world, including their favorite teams, that there are people out there that are willing to provide that. And those people are not the subjects themselves or the teams themselves, that’s public relations. And the blurring behind journalism and public relations is being done by teams and players and is being consumed by fans is a little bit frightening. But I’d like to think that there’s always a place and always an audience for people who want the journalistic approach as opposed to the public relations approach.
JF: Do things like this worry you as a sports journalist at all?
JB: They don’t. Partly because my interest in sports rarely has to do with the big events and the big players. It might be more the reasons why I prefer to go to kind of darker corners of sports and the shadows of sports. Because in some ways, the reporting is easier and more opportunistic and I think the stories are better. I’d rather write about a girls team in Tennessee that never wins a game than I want to write about LeBron James. And so for those that want to read about LeBron James or those who want to cover LeBron James, yes it’s probably more difficult. But I’d like to think that if nothing else this will expand our world and this will sort of help journalists realize maybe there’s other things to report on. Marshawn Lynch doesn’t want to talk to us, let’s go find a better story somewhere else. And that’s probably a good thing.
JF: Going back to CU-Boulder, what has your experience being on the JMC (Journalism and Mass Communication) and the newly formed CMCI (College of Media, Communication and Information) advisory board been like?
JB: It’s been fascinating. I became a board member sort of after the journalism school was deconstructed. So I’ve just been a second-hand witness I guess to the reconstruction of CMCI and that’s been exciting because I didn’t have to do any of the hard work or make any of the hard decisions. I was able to basically chime in now and again as it was being built and it was all full of optimism and all the talk was about the future. That’s very exciting for me and I’m excited to see it exist. I’m excited to see it down the road as it starts putting students into professions and maybe a physical building for it as the reputation for it grows. I’ll look back on it and be like, “Yeah I had a tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny say in parts of that.” But that’s still my school. The worst thing would’ve been for the journalism school just to die. That would’ve been sad and wrong and difficult to swallow. The best thing is for it to emerge as something powerful, something meaningful, and I’d like to think that’s where it’s headed.
JF: How closely do you follow CU sports?
JB: I always have a vague idea of how the different teams are doing. Living out west I keep my eye on the Pac-12, so I have a vague notion. I have to tell you, as a long-time sports reporter, I’ve given up my allegiances long ago. But I tend to root for teams depending on what it would mean for people I know and love. So I have a lot of people who I know and love who certainly want Colorado to do well in sports, and if makes them happy I guess it makes me happy too. But I’m also somebody who wants the reputation of his alma matter to be based on academics and good works more than athletic success. So in a lot of ways it doesn’t really matter, and I would trade all athletic success for a sterling reputation academically, which I know doesn’t make me much of a sports writer does it (laughs)?
JF: For you, what’s the most difficult part of being a journalist?
JB: I don’t think there’s that much that’s difficult. I laugh about this and it comes up as we were talking about CMCI. What we do is not that hard I don’t think. I get to wake up in the morning and go call people or talk to people who talk to me simply because I tell them I’m a reporter. And I ask them questions that nobody in their right mind would ask them unless they were a reporter. And then I get to go home and write stories about it and I have a publisher who puts it into a million copies in print. That’s crazy. That’s nuts. If I were to say anything’s hard about that I think that’d be kind of a slap in the face to everybody else who actually does work hard for a living. I’m joking in some ways, but what’s hard about it, I think, is just the never-ending quest. By the time a story of mine publishes, I’m on to the next story and there’s a little bit of stress involved in terms of trying to get that next story reported and written. I think that’s kind of the beauty and the curse of the daily newspaper business. Once a story is written, it’s yesterday’s news and suddenly you’re moving on to the next one. That’s both exciting and difficult. You always feel like you’re in finals week, you always feel like there’s another moving. You don’t feel like you’ve accomplished much because you have to move on to the next thing so quickly.
JF: On that note, and I’m sure you get this a lot, what advice would you give to prospective journalists in school?
JB: I love this topic because I have a lot of friends that would say they would say, “I would recommend they don’t go into journalism.” I’m a big believer that if you believe in it and you’re talented enough you’ll find your way. I don’t know exactly how you’re going to get paid, but there is always going to be a place for people to do the hard digging, to find the real truths. I think if you have the tenacity and the talent, you can make a very fine career doing this. And I think you’d be certainly happier than you would be doing whatever else you think might make more sense. The other piece of advice I’d say is that in this world you just cannot predict what you’re future is going to be. So if you’re a journalism student, don’t think, “In five years I want to be doing this and in ten years I want to be doing this,” because you don’t know where the doors are going to open. So the beauty of journalism is that you just have no clue what your next day is going to bring, what your next year is going to bring, what your next decade is going to bring. You really don’t. And I know that scares students and I know that scares students’ parents, but that’s part of the excitement. And I think that sounds kind of great.
JF: Going forward, do you have any exciting projects you’re working on now?
JB: I have one I haven’t published that I’m excited about, but nothing big. I always have a list of probably 20 stories I’d love to do and probably four or five I’m working on. None of them are going to win a Pulitzer Prize, but I love them just the same.
JF: I guess my last hard-hitting question I want to ask you is what’s your favorite place to eat in Boulder?
JB: Oh gosh, it probably doesn’t exist anymore. Boy that’s a weird question. That’s a great question. Let me think about this. Well “The Sink” was always the place but it was called “Poor Herbie’s” back then, back in the ’80s. There was a bleak non-Sink period of that place. “Pasta Jay’s” opened at some point late in my scholastic career there, so “Pasta Jay’s” is a place. Where did I eat? I don’t remember food, did I ever eat in Boulder? I was a hasher at a sorority house, I guess I ate there. Jared that’s a fantastic question you totally stumped me. Hold on let me think about this. Years ago it was “Round the Corner” on The Hill. I’m sure there was like a Mexican place I used to go to but I think of where I used to go. You’ve stumped me. I need to eat in Boulder more often. “The Gondolier” was another one more recently. Where is the best place to eat?
JF: Oh man, it’s hard to say. I don’t know, “The Dark Horse” is pretty popular.
JB: Yeah, I’ve eaten a lot of burgers at ‘The Dark Horse.” That’s funny that’s still popular. It’s funny most the places when I was a senior and I was 21—this is how old I am—when I went to school, they had 3.2 beer. So you only had to be 18 to drink 3.2 beer. “Round the Corner” on The Hill, and “The Sink” even, those places were 3.2 places so you could buy beer. We used to go down Pearl Street and there was a place called “Pearl’s,” it’s not called that anymore, and “Potter’s” and “Catacombs” in the basement of “Boulderado,” which I think is still there. Those were all beer hangouts. So I hate to admit it, but I went to restaurants mostly to drink beer, not to eat food.
Contact CU Independent assistant sports editor Jared Funk-Breay at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on twitter: @jaredfunkbreay